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Holy Spirit

             

ACTA

LECTIONARY COMMENTARY

Second sunday in ordinary time

YEAR A

YEAR OF MATTHEW

Download:  Second Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

 

READINGS

A reading from the prophet Isaiah                           49:3. 5-6     

Responsorial Psalm               Psalm 40:2. 4. 7-10. R/. vv. 8.9

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians

                                                                                     1:1-3       

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John    1:29-34

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 Identity markers

 

Over the Advent and Christmas period, into the New Year, and today, our Lectionary has been concerned with births and celebration of births.  At the very heart of these wonders there runs a series of identity markers.  Who is this child? What is his name? Why has this Jewish child been born into our world?  On the very first Sunday of Advent we were invited to begin an exploration:

Come,

let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

to the house of the God of Jacob,

that he may teach us his ways

and that we may walk in his paths.

                                                                             Isaiah 2:3

Let the mountain of the Lord stand for the pages of our Bible read to us from our lectern. Let the house of the God of Jacob, the Temple in Jerusalem, stand for your altar.  We are invited back to school, to the school of God, the God who will be our teacher whose ways we must learn. What we soon discover is that our Teacher is concerned, not to spread out before us lots of laws, statutes, and ordinances.  What concerns the Lord God we meet from Advent to Candlemas is to introduce us to two people.  The first is, of course, Jesus. Consider the identity of the person God wants us to meet:

Son of Man

A shoot of Jesse

The glory of the Lord

The splendour of Carmel

The Lord in your midst

A victorious warrior

A star of Jacob

A sceptre from Israel

Emmanuel

God-with-Us

Son of the Most High

The Holy One

The Son of God

Wise Counsellor

Mighty God

Prince of Peace

Saviour

A great Joy

Christ the Lord

King of the Jews

Word made Flesh

The Only Son of the Father

JESUS

 

… and many more identity markers besides pepper our readings during these precious days.

    That is what we learn in listening to our Teacher, to God in our Holy Scriptures, who in these lasts days has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, and through whom he created the world (Hebrews 1:2).

    What the days of Advent and Christmas proclaim is not a doctrine, not a creed; what we are given is a Person.  Every phrase, every sentence, every name declares who it is that has been sent by God to shepherd humanity into peace. Close examination of the identity markers reveals that the child born in Bethlehem in Immanuel, God-with-Us, whose purpose is to be with us and to lead into the arms of God.

    There are many ways we welcome the One who has been born. We sing with the angels.  We wonder with the shepherds.  We join with the Magi, rejoicing exceedingly with great joy. We open our treasures.  We worship him.   Above all, we know in our heart-of-hearts who it is who has come into our hearts. We know who has come to be with us:

The Word became flesh

and dwelt among us,

and we have seen his glory,

glory as of the only Son from the Father,

full of grace and truth.

 

    Boundary markers

 

Identity markers tell us and others who we are.  If we read the identity of Jesus given us in God’s catechesis we know that our faith is to accept Immanuel who has come to enter parishes and churches, our hearts and our homes. For God has built his crib amongst us and mangered there his child.

    But we must realise that God, in revealing the identity of the Son, is revealing our identity.   Disciples of Jesus are those who commit themselves to be transformed into the identity of the Jesus.  His coming is a call to us to take on his identity, cross and all, and to walk with him into the glory that is God.

  In order to serve the kingdom of heaven, that is, in order to live in the way God intended men and women to live, we must become as Christ Jesus is. The identity of the Master must become the identity of the apprentice.[1]  In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Jesus discloses the identity of Christians disciples:

 

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.                                       Matthew 5:14-16

    A parable told in the Temple to chief priests and elders of the people (all of which adds weight to the story) and found only in the Gospel of Matthew makes the point:

 

 What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today’. And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you”.                                           Matthew 21:28-31[2]

Notice the will of his father in the story.  Notice the insistent Amen, I say to you. Notice that Matthew uses kingdom of God, and not his usual kingdom of heaven, in case there is any doubt about the matter.  There is no room for yes-men.  Only those who do the will of the father belong in the  kingdom.  It is only such people who are doing the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven, that is, as it is done according to God’s liking.

    Long before Matthew wrote, St Paul made the same claim when he set down the identity marker of all who were baptised: 

 

… for in Christ Jesus you are all sons and daughters of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.              Galatians 3:26-28

    All other identities pale into insignificance when compared to our new identity, the very identity of Christ Jesus.  Where we come from, what nationality we are born into, what culture we inherit, or what allegiances we share, are of no account when compared to the identity into which we are baptised.

     Baptism means to be immersed into water, to be plunged in over our heads.  That’s what John the Baptist was doing, ducking people completely under the water of the Jordan River, to show that God was taking over every bit of them: mind and heart, body and soul, warts and all.   

   When we read, when we listen, when we sing, when celebrate the birth of Jesus, we must realise that we are celebrating our own birthday.  We are celebrating that God has taken over our whole self and hopes to find in us a permanent home.

A reading from the prophet Isaiah                           49:3. 5-6

And [the Lord] said to me, “You are my servant Israel

in whom I will be glorified.”

And now the Lord says,

he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,

to bring Jacob back to him;

and that Israel might be gathered to him—

for I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord,

and my God has become my strength—

 he says:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant

to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to bring back the preserved of Israel;

 I will make you as a light for the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

                                                          The word of the Lord.

     Some chapters in the Book of Isaiah contain what are usually called Servant Songs.  There are four songs all told (Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9, and 52:13 to 53:12).  The “servant” in these songs is regarded by Jewish scholars as referring to Israel.  The “servant” is Israel who is called upon to serve God as a light to the nations.  The “servant” will suffer in fulfilling God’s vocation (see especially Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12).  Many Christian scholars regard these beautiful reflections as prophetic and intended to reveal Jesus as the Suffering Servant.  I am inclined to see them as  both, and, in addition, an identity marker of everyone who  undertakes to live the life of God on earth.  Everyone who is chosen to be “God’s servant”, everyone who accepts the divine call, everyone into whom God puts his Spirit, must “bring justice to the nations”.  Such a spirit-filled servant lives and proclaims God’s justice.  The servant does not come to humiliate or condemn.  The servant does not break the bruised reed nor put out the faintly flickering candle. 

     Five times in Isaiah 42:1-7 the vocation of “the servant” is to proclaim and uphold God’s justice.  This is not to serve human justice such as our courts administer.  It is to insist on God’s justice, a justice that is founded on the rock of God’s love, a justice that comes with compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and the creation of peace.  It is a justice that does not condemn.  It is a justice that transforms, that empowers, the re-orientates, that re-directs.  God takes “the servant” by the hand and schools the servant to be “a light to the nations,

to open the eyes that are blind,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,

 from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Isaiah 42:7

    Today we listen to some of the second Servant Song (Isaiah 49:1-7).  The “servant” knows that God formed me from the womb to be his servant.  It is not enough that the servant talks to the converted; it is not enough to share God with the huddled few; it is not enough to hide inside the doors of churches.  The servant, the true servant, is to be a light to the nations, a voice in the city square, a voice of God wherever injustice prevails.  In short, here is our vocation:

I will make you a light to the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

 

That is who we are.  That is what we are called to be.

Responsorial Psalm               Psalm 40:2. 4. 7-10. R/. vv. 8.9

A PSALM OF DAVID

Response:   Behold, I have come!

I desire to do your will, O Lord.

 

I waited patiently for the Lord;

he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He put a new song in my mouth,

                      a song of praise to our God.                R/.

 

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,

but you have given me an open ear.

Burnt offering and sin offering

you have not required.

                 Then I said, “Behold, I have come”.        R/.

 

In the scroll of the book it is written of me:

 I delight to do your will, O my God;

                     your law is within my heart.             R/.

 

I have told the glad news of deliverance

in the great congregation;

behold, I have not restrained my lips,

 as you know, O Lord.

 

R/.   Behold, I have come!

I desire to do your will, O Lord.

 

Psalm 40 is a prayer of many moods and tenses.  It begins with great faith.  The Lord “heard my cry”.  The Lord drew me from the pit of destruction, from the murky waters of the abyss. The Lord put a new song on my lips.  Praise the Lord! Trust in the Lord!

    What the Lord requires is not primarily sacrifice; offerings are not God’s chief concern.  What God demands is total dedication.  Readiness is all:

Here I am, Lord.

Whoever prays this prayer, whoever sings this song, is at God’s disposal, fully obedient to the will of God.  The identity of the one who prays the words of this pray is revealed:

I delight to do you will, O my God!
Your law is within my heart!

 

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians

                                                                                     1:1-3       

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,

 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The word of the Lord.

Read these opening lines.  Listen to a single sentence of Paul. First the words come from Paul, the greatest of all apostles and his brother-in-Christ, Sosthenes.  It was God’s will that the Jew Paul should be the apostle to the Gentiles, to non-Jews.  His call comes from God.  The core of his apostleship, the very centre of his being, is to be an apostle who, at God’s bidding, proclaims Christ Jesus.  But the people to whom he writes are also called.  They are called to be saints, to be holy as God is holy.  They are not less than Paul; they have different functions and responsibilities, but they are all “in Christ Jesus”.  

    His letter is to “”the church of God in Corinth”.  Paul never speaks of the universal Church.  His concern is always for the local church, the little churches he founded and that were always closest to his heart.  For Paul, the little ekklesia, the little church, possessed the fullness of what it means to be church, to be a community of love.

    What is the identity of these people, a tiny few of the many who lived in the bustling port of Corinth? First, they are a holy people.  They are made holy because they live in Christ Jesus.  They are holy as God is holy for they stand before God decked with all that Jesus is.  Their holiness is his holiness.  So this little church in Corinth (probably made up of a group of house-churches) is a community of saints, saints in the here-and-now.

     Not that they all have halos, as we can see by reading the letter.  There were divisions, dissensions, and jealousies, even one who is sleeping with his father’s wife (see 5:1-2). Many are “infants in Christ” (3:1).  But, taking the good with the bad, the community is a community of saints because God sees this mixum-gatherum through the lens of Christ Jesus. 

    Every little church in Paul’s vision is made up of “all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.  Jesus is Lord of all these little churches.  He is the Lord who binds them together and fronts them before “God our Father”.

    Paul’s prayer for them is,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Grace is not some kind of substance.  Grace is God’s love, gift-wrapped.  Grace is God’s embrace, God enfolding us in arms of love, the only love that lasts forever.  With that love comes peace.  To know that no matter what we are, whether we are engulfed by sin, downtrodden by circumstance, broken by experience, or full of the joys of spring, each of us is loved with a love beyond telling. 

     Paul spends much of his time in this letter trying to cope with the many issues that divide the churches in Corinth and he has much to say by way of chastisement.  But recall the lesson that was read at the last wedding you were at, words from this letter:

Love is patient and kind;

love does not envy or boast;

it is not arrogant or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;

it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice at wrongdoing,

but rejoices with the truth.

Love bears all things,

believes all things,

hopes all things,

endures all things.

Love never ends.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

 

    What we have in Paul’s introduction is an identity.  Paul tells the Corinthians who they are.  Whatever disruptions Chloe’s people may have reported to Paul (see 1:11), the great pastor reminds his Christian community of who they are before he sets about dealing with the many wrongs that are done among them.  He reminds than that they are “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus”.  They are not made holy through their own efforts.  They are made holy because they are in Christ Jesus and he in them.   

  

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John    1:29-34

 

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me. ’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’.” And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Unfortunately, the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to St John, does not have a year of its own in our Lectionary.  Its chapters are scattered among the readings of the other three years.  If we depend only on the Lectionary, it is difficult to get a grip on what John’s Gospel is about.

    Today’s reading is plucked out of John’s first chapter.  We miss the full impact of what we read and listen to today for our Lectionary leaves out the first three words of the paragraph before us:

The next day …

 

There are three “the next day” in John’s first chapter.  It is obvious he is building up to something, and the thing he is building up to is a wedding.   It is  ”a wedding at Cana in Galilee”, a wedding which, we are told, is “on the third day”.  But there are at least four days that come before the happy day in Cana.  So could the author(s) of this Gospel count?

    Identities

All that we have before the wedding is concerned with the identity of Jesus and the identity of John.  Each of our four Gospels is very different in content but not in ambition.  Each attempts to show who Jesus is.  Each has very carefully constructed and detailed material to establish for its readers and hearers who it is that comes to us from God.  These introductory chapters of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John so fill our minds and hearts with images and phrases, with visions and memories, that we forge our own picture of Jesus from bits and pieces of each Gospel and come up with “Jesus according to Me”.  This is inevitable.  But we must stand back and ask what portrait of Jesus emerges from each Gospel.  We might regard the people who wrote our Gospels as artists, each painting his own portrait of Jesus. Who is Matthew’s Jesus?  Who is Mark’s Jesus? Luke’s Jesus? John’s Jesus?

    Instead of Matthew’s dreaming Joseph, instead of magi and cruel King Herod, instead of Mary and Elizabeth, instead inns and mangers, angels and shepherds, instead of Mark starting with the adult Jesus, in John we begin in eternity.  We begin before the world begins.  We begin at the beginning:

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

John 1:1

That’s a far cry from a manger and a very far cry from Herod, the King of the Jews, and magi from the East. 

    So who is the Jesus we meet in the John’s Gospel?

    John’s Jesus

 

We might begin our answer to that question with another: Who is John, the man who allegedly wrote this Gospel?  Our ancient traditions were assured that John the author was John the fisherman, the brother of James, the son of Zebedee, the disciple of Jesus, the apostle who stood beside Mary at the foot of the cross, and who, with Peter, ran to inspect the empty tomb.  This John apparently went to Ephesus in what is now western Turkey.  There he cared for the mother of Jesus.  He found himself on an offshore island to avoid a persecution of Christians instigated by the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.).  He wrote the Gospel while on the island and returned to Ephesus when the imperial terror ended.  All of this can point to evidence supplied by important figures spread across the ancient churches, mainly second century figures - so pretty early -  from east and west.  However, all, or nearly all, of this can be challenged and the most scholars are convinced that the Fourth Gospel does not come directly from the hands of John, the son of Zebedee.[3] 

     Whatever the origins of John’s Gospel, it is certainly a very profound meditation on who Jesus is.  It is a meditation that has resulted in forming much of the Church’s rich understanding of the identity of Jesus.

    Consider what is generally called the prologue to the Gospel.  Many of its sentences are familiar to Christians and form part of their prayer.  The Angelus prayer is heavily indebted to the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel.  Read the prologue’s familiar words and note its carefully planned structure:

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things were made through him,

and without him was not any thing made

that was made.

In him was life,

and the life was the light of men.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not overcome it.

 

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

 

He was in the world,

and the world was made through him,

yet the world did not know him.

\He came to his own,

and his own people did not receive him. \

But to all who did receive him,

who believed in his name,

he gave the right to become children of God,

 

(that is, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.)

 

And the Word became flesh

and dwelt among us,

and we have seen his glory,

glory as of the only Son from the Father,

full of grace and truth.

 

 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.”)

 

For from his fullness

we have all received,

grace upon grace.

 

 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

 

    The red lines form a poem delighting in a profound insight into who it is who has come to us from God.  The green sentences are not part of the poem.  They are prose explanatory notes to outline the purpose served by John the Baptist in God’s introduction of the Word made flesh into our world.  Notice that there is no reference to John as one engaged in a ministry of baptising.  His sole function in the divine scheme of things was to be a witness.  

    The blue lines are further explanatory notes provided so that readers and listeners might grasp the depth of the love that through Jesus was being lavished on humanity.

   Though the vocabulary of this prologue does not play a part in all that follows, nonetheless this Prologue stands as an interpretation of all that follows.  The body of the Gospel, the narrative story, is an elucidation, not a repetition, of the prologue.  However, the Prologue is not forgotten. In the very first line readers and listeners are informed that,

The Word was God.

At the Gospel’s end, Thomas, the reluctant believer, announces the rich faith that comes to all who believe in what they have read in the pages of the Gospel.  Jesus is,

My Lord and my God.

 

The purpose of all of the Fourth Gospel is to move its readers and hearers from what is boldly asserted in the Prologue to a confession, a realisation, that what is asserted in all its pages, is, in fact, God’s truth. If we have ears to hear, the words of Thomas become our words.

    John the Witness

 

In this Gospel John the Baptist is a witness.  His task is be the authentic voice of God pointing, not to himself, but to the Word made flesh.  Five times in chapter 1 readers are informed that John is a witness.  John declares that he is not the Messiah, not Elijah, not even an expected prophet (John 1:19-22).  He is a voice of Isaiah, crying in the desert and demanding what Isaiah demanded:  make straight the way of the Lord.

    The writer(s) of this Gospel do not stress John’s ministry of baptism. His task is to identify the one who stands among you whom you do not know.  But notice what John witnesses to:

This is the Son of God.

 

Be careful here.  God is named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But God is not a father.  God does not beget a son.  God does not generate a Spirit.  What we know about God is expressed in human language.  We have no other words.  There is no such thing as a holy language.  No language is holy. We take our human words and we apply them to God, always remembering that we are trying to express the identity of God in a way that we can understand.  The people who composed all that we read in our Bible sought to clarify the identity of God, to name God in human language, the only kind of language we have, no matter what version of human language we speak.  Listen to Isaiah trying to identify the Messiah to come:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and forevermore.

Isaiah 9:6-8

 

Rejoice in the profusion of goodness, of blessings beyond expectations.  But notice the strain to find the right words.  A child is born to us? How can a child born to us, born in the way our children are conceived and born, be Mighty God?  How can a son given to us be Everlasting FatherPrince of Peace? For that matter, where is justice and righteousness? Look around our world.  Where is peace? Justice? Righteousness?

   What Isaiah has given us is a psalm, a song.  We find the same in Psalm 2:7,

The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;

today I have begotten you.

 

The poet is singing of the high heavens, putting a song on the lips of God. (Sorry! God has no lips!) What Isaiah is doing is taking the language one might use to describe an earthly king and applying it to God and to the messiah God will send. 

    Imagine a coronation ceremony.  Imagine the very best tenor or soprano singing a solo in praise of the one being crowned.  Imagine the song is an act of hope.  We hope this is how our sovereign will turn out to be.  The song will have words that were used to praise great kings of the past who were truly amazingly good rulers (like King Hezekiah or King Josiah).  Our singer expresses the hopes of everyone.  A father-king protects the people.  A prince of peace gives the people what it most desires, freedom from war and an outbreak of everlasting peace, of shalom without end.

     We have no other language.  But we know that God is the best of fathers and the best of mothers. We know that the obedience of the Son was total: obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:9).  We stretch our language to the limits in order to express what God means for us. 

   The Spirit of the Lord is God reaching into our hearts and turning our spirit in God’s goodness.  We are literally inspired to love, to be filled with compassion, to have mercy when only mercy will serve, and to forgive when we ourselves live each day in expectation of divine forgiveness.  It is the Spirit of God that lifts us up.  It is the Spirit of God that strengthens us to be like God.

    To call Jesus God’s Son is to confess that we have a brother that teaches us to be in the world what God is in heaven.  Unto us is given a Son who knows his Father and can teach us to do on earth what is done in heaven.  What is “done in heaven” is a poetic insight.  It means that we on earth hope to be so strengthened by God, so filled with divine spirit, that we are able to walk the way of God in our downtrodden world.

    All that is embraced in John’s witness:

This is the Son of God.

   John’s testimony embraces all we have heard in the Prologue (John1:1-18).  Jesus is the one totally full of God’s Spirit and in his last words to his disciples on the night he washed their feet he promised that that Spirit would become their Spirit:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

John14:15-17

    Five times John is called a witness. The writer(s) of John’s Gospel were probably hoping that the penny would drop in those who read and heard its pages.  We are all called to be witnesses.

Joseph O’Hanlon  

   

 

 

 

 

[1] The Greek word for a disciple throughout the New Testament (μαθητὴς, mathētēs) means a pupil, a student, an apprentice.

[2] I have retained Amen, I say to you, rather than Truly, I say to you, offered by the ESV and the RSV and many modern English translation.  The Hebrew word AMEN confirms that what is said is utterly true, utterly faithful and reliable.  It is used at the end of many Psalms, a response of the congregation, to affirm their conviction of the truth of the prayer.   Jesus uses it to emphasise the complete truth of his teaching.  We use it at the end of our prayers to emphasise that we mean what we have prayed.

[3]  It is traditional to retain the title John’s Gospel, even though there are grave reasons for suspecting that John the son of Zebedee did not write this Gospel.